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Reptile imprinting: is it possible?

In animal behavior, imprinting is a form of learning that allows hatchlings and newborns to recognize themselves as members of a given species by observing their parents during the critical first days of life.

Imprinting mostly occurs in bird species and a few mammals, but there’s no such a thing as imprinting for reptiles and lizards.

Some species of reptile, particularly lizards and turtles, may grow to bond with their owners after regular handling and care, but that is different from imprinting.

Lizard hatchlings do not imprint on humans, sadly.
Wall Lizard hatchling. Photo courtesy of Javier Ábalos.

What is imprinting?

Imprinting is a type of learning that occurs early in life and results in a strong attachment to a specific object or individual.

It is most common in birds and mammals, whereas there is little evidence of imprinting in reptiles.

Sometimes, baby crocodiles or lizards can be observed following their mother around, but that is not necessarily a sign of imprinting.

Reptiles are solitary animals and do not need to form strong bonds with their caregivers in order to survive.

Cannibalism is also relatively common in many reptile species, which means that the young may see adults as a potential predator and hide from them.

Komodo dragons, for example, will spend most of their time climbing on trees as juvenile in order to escape from adults who actively prey on them.

Can lizards get attached to their owners?

Most reptiles learn to recognize people who care for and handle them on a regular basis, and they will eventually recognize them as a trusted source of food.

That’s more of an opportunistic relationship than a form of bonding, though.

Only a few intelligent lizard species, such as bearded dragons, tegu and monitor lizards, do appear to bond with humans under the right conditions.

Some caregivers have reported their pets showing interest in them even to the point where they would ignore food in favor of handling, which is unusual for all other reptile species such as snakes, which do not show any form of affection towards their owners no matter what.

Tegu lizards are reportedly affectionate and even cuddly when properly cared for, but this can only be achieved after months (or years) of handling, and it is not the same as imprinting.

Hatchling and juvenile reptiles do not form immediate bonds with their parents (neither human nor biological), but will rather see them as potential predators and run away to hide.

This is because in the wild it is not uncommon for adults to feed on babies on the same species.


Do snakes imprint?

There is no evidence to suggest that snakes imprint.

Most female snakes abandon their eggs after laying them. 

The hatchlings are born independent and must fend for themselves immediately.

There is no such thing as parental care in snakes, therefore no opportunities for imprinting.

Do crocodiles imprint?

There is some evidence to suggest that crocodiles may imprint.

Studies have shown that baby crocodiles will follow their mothers more closely than they will other individuals.

However, other studies have shown that baby crocodiles will follow any moving object, regardless of whether it is their mother or caregiver.

Do alligators imprint?

As for crocodiles, there is some evidence to suggest that they may imprint.

Studies have shown that baby crocodiles will follow their mothers more closely than they will other individuals.

However, other studies have shown that baby crocodiles will follow any moving object, regardless of whether it is their mother or caregiver.

Do lizards imprint?

There is also some evidence to suggest that lizards may imprint.

Studies have shown that baby lizards will respond to their caretakers more readily than they will to other individuals.

However, other studies have shown that baby lizards will respond to any human who touches them, regardless of whether they are their caretaker or not.

Do turtles imprint?

There is some evidence to suggest that sea turtles may imprint on the beach where they were born.

Studies have shown that sea turtles will return to the same beach to lay their own eggs.

However, it is not clear whether this is due to imprinting or simply because sea turtles are drawn to the beach where they hatched.

More research is needed to determine whether or not sea turtle imprinting is a real phenomenon.

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